First Year Odyssey

Chalk Talk

Three Chips and You’re Out by Denise C. Mewborn

From Chalk Talk: Teaching Tips from the UGA Teaching Academy, edited by Loch K. Johnson.

During one of the first doctoral courses I taught, I had a group of about ten students with very different temperaments, personalities, and participation styles. I had the usual distribution of a few students who tried to dominate the conversation, a few who never said anything, and a group in the middle who participated to varying degrees as they felt comfortable. Participation ranged from prescient comments that demonstrated a thoughtful analysis of the text, to restatements of items from the text, to personal anecdotes that often were not well-connected to the text.

I tried to ward off problems with participation by providing the students with a rubric for participation on the syllabus (see the figure below). Indeed, I had devoted several minutes of the first class period to going over the rubric, and most of the students smiled and nodded knowingly, leading me to think they understood my goals.

Class Participation

In order for everyone to benefit from the discussions and class activities, please exercise the utmost professionalism in your interactions during class. Monitor your participation to be sure that you are not dominating the conversation or are not being shut out of the discussion. Remember that the quality of your participation is more important than the quantity. Be respectful in the way you assert your opinions and ideas, and in the way you respond to the ideas and opinions of others. Remember to disagree with ideas, not with people.

The following general guidelines will be used to assess class participation:

  • A Outstanding Contribution: Insightful and thoughtful comments, questions, and or summary reflecting a careful reading and analysis of the material.
  • B Adequate Contribution: Comments are accurate but not particularly insightful or thoughtful. Demonstrates an understanding of the readings but not necessarily a very deep or careful analysis.
  • C Marginal Contribution: Makes little contribution to the class discussion or does a poor job of summarizing/analyzing material. Primarily tells stories, anecdotes, or personal experiences with no analysis or reflection.
  • D Unacceptable Contribution: Minimal contribution to discussion, comments are not clearly related to the topic at hand, or comes to class having not completed all of the readings.

Approximately a month into the term, I realized that my subtle attempts to shape participation were not succeeding as one student in particular, Nicole, was dominating the conversation with “bite-sized” comments of little substance. Further, most students were not making comments that were responsive to the comments of others, and several students were not saying much at all. Thus, I spent some time going over the class participation rubric again and distributed a self-evaluation form on which the students were to rate their class participation behavior, comment on the strengths and weaknesses of their participation to date, and propose concrete actions to remedy any identified weaknesses. Again, students nodded knowingly, and Nicole even came to me after class to say that she realized she was not participating in ways that were helpful and would make a concerted effort to bite her tongue and give others a chance to be part of the discussion. Another student, Collins, recognized that his comments (often in response to the first student) were generally sarcastic rather than substantive. I left that class period feeling that my problems had been solved. Things improved for a day or two but, unfortunately, the students quickly returned to the usual routine.

I decided to try a technique I had read about in the gender equity literature. The next class period I presented each student with three chips and explained the rules. (I used checkers, but anything will do: bottle caps, scraps of paper, golf tees.) I told the students: when you make a comment, however small or large, place a chip in the middle of the table. When all of your chips are gone, you may not speak again until everyone else is out of chips.

The results were amazing. I opened up discussion of the article for the day, and Nicole immediately made a minor comment that essentially restated a small fact from the article. She was chagrined when I motioned for her to put a chip in the middle of the table. Collins then made a sarcastic comment about Nicole losing a chip and was similarly chagrined when I made him put a chip in the middle. This interchange silenced the two of them briefly, but it wasn’t long before Nicole and Collins were out of chips—and then the rest of the class came alive and really began discussing the article. The most reluctant students sat for a while with three chips, but quickly realized that they needed to jump into the conversation to avoid being the sole focus of attention when everyone else ran out of chips. When everyone was out of chips, we redistributed them quickly and continued with the discussion. After four rounds, we had reached a logical stopping point in the article, so I turned the discussion to their experiences with the chips.

Nicole and Collins reported that they had become aware of the shallow nature of many of their comments. They also said that they had been forced to actually listen to what others were saying, rather than always thinking about their next comment. Those who infrequently offered comments noted that although they initially felt some discomfort, they were freed from the need to try to quickly interject between comments by Nicole and Collins; they now had more time to process the discussion and think through their comments. Those in the middle said that they had previously felt like the “nice guys,” always waiting their turn and trying to create space for others to talk, but the space was usually filled by Nicole and Collins. So in the process of trying to foster discussion, they were actually shutting themselves out of the discussion.

The chips technique was so successful in helping students understand the nature of meaningful discourse that I now use this technique early in the term in every class I teach to make a pedagogical point about class participation. I have used this method in undergraduate and graduate classes with groups as large as thirty.